(From the Westchester Guardian of February 4, 2016
-- There is an excellent Cover page piece by ex-Congressperson and co-Chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton, "What Will It Take To End Income Inequality" in the issue
Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changes normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.
Are Hackers Evil? One would think so from reading the press or watching television – with the possible exception of the loosely connected group of hackers, “Anonymous,” who are treated like the Leslie Charteris character, “The Saint” (the “Robin Hood of Modern Crime”), because they perpetrate mayhem upon those that most of us can’t stomach, such as ISIS and the Westboro Baptist Church. The rest of them, most of us think, exist only to steal our identities or foul up our connections.
So, are all “hackers” evil or, at least, criminals? In one word, No!
First, we should define the word. To the early computer enthusiasts, a hacker was simply one who “pushed the envelope,” who did things with hardware and software that, not only hadn’t been done before but hadn’t even been thought of by the people who developed the hardware and software. In today’s world, there are many conflicting definitions and, herein, lies the problem:
- · New Hacker’s Dictionary (http://searchsecurity.techtarget.com/definition/hacker) -- “a hacker is a clever programmer.” Eric Raymond, Editor of the dictionary, deprecates the use of this term for someone who attempts to crack someone else's system or otherwise uses programming or expert knowledge to act maliciously. He prefers the term “cracker” for this meaning.
1. as someone who is able to subvert computer security; if doing so for malicious purposes, the person can also be called a cracker.
2. an adherent of the technology and programming subculture.”
White-hat (hacking for the enjoyment of exploration)
Black-hat (hacking to find exploits and system weaknesses, see cracker)
and Grey-hat (someone who is a little of both)”
In short, it is difficult to find a universal definition of the word. The three examples above all agree that a hacker is gifted technically and may (or may not) use these skills for malicious purposes. They all join in referring to those who do use the skills for malicious purposes as crackers.
Unfortunately, one never sees the term cracker in the popular press. Every time there is a break-in to a credit card or department store database and identity information is stolen, the term hacker appears in big bold headlines. Yet the headline writers as well as the authors of the articles themselves should know better. All they have to do is have some familiarity with Steven Levy’s wonderful 1985 book, “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,” in which he traces the origins of the hacking revolutions to the MIT Computer Lab, where young enthusiasts first started pushing the computer envelope, and the MITS company of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which developed the first microcomputer, the “Altair,” and was the home of the company known as “Micro-soft” (later “Microsoft”).
Hackers have long railed about what they see as the broad brush that paints them all as criminals. One difficulty that existed in the late 1980s and 1990s was that hackers and law enforcement had a different view of what malicious activity was. The common hacker definition was “do no harm,” a definition that gave implicit permission to hackers, without permission, to go into computer systems belonging to others – normally large “mainframe systems” – as long as nothing was disrupted or broken. Businesses and law enforcement took quite another view: if you did not have explicit permission to be there, it was against the law to be there.
What was the reason for this battle of wills? – after all, burglars and law enforcement agree on the definition of burglary. Mark Abene, known in the hacker world as “Phiber Optik” during that period and considered a programming genius from his early teen years, explained his rationale once, “I want to know everything I can about computers and want to make it my life. The operating system of the Internet and large systems is UNIX. I have an Apple II and UNIX can’t run on that or other microcomputers so the only way that I can really learn is to access larger systems that that have that operating system, and I don’t hurt anything when I do, so it’s worth the risk.”
Mark, unfortunately, did spend a year in prison not long after for being in computers to which he didn’t belong (although many in the hacker community thought that the prosecution was part of a public relations campaign by law enforcement to obtain greater access to computers. Such charges have been hotly denied by law enforcement). Mark today is a highly respected computer security consultant.
That period was a very interesting period as computer people and law enforcement tied to arrive at understandings of the ramifications of this rapidly evolving technology. Hacker conferences and meetings such as the annual “DEFCON” in Las Vegas, the annual “Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conferences” (held around North America), and the monthly “2600 Meetings” (held around the world) brought together hackers and law enforcement; when one thinks of such meetings, it must be noted that they are rather unusual – after all, if burglars had a conference, they wouldn’t invite the police.
The unusualness of this was brought home to me at the first Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference in 1990 in San Francisco. At a break, I was standing in the hall talking to “Phiber;” John Draper, one of the early hackers, known as “Capt’n Crunch;” and Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired Magazine. Phiber turned to us and said “There’s Don Delaney. He was my arresting officer.” Draper responded “Over there is Don Ingraham. He was my prosecuting attorney.” Kelly then asked me if we shouldn’t feel out of it, having neither an arresting officer nor a prosecuting attorney.
The 2600 conferences take their name from “2600 Magazine: The Hacker Quarterly” (www.2600.com) which in turn takes its name from 2600 MhZ, the frequency of the Bell Telephone network’s communications system. It was the knowledge of that frequency that allowed hackers such as Draper to build devices, known as “Blue Boxes” to replicate the tones in order to make free phone calls. 2600 Magazine contains articles on hacking theory & philosophy and often divulges security holes in corporate and government systems. While the magazine has been often criticized for this practice, Editor and Publisher Eric Corley (aka Emmanuel Goldstein) defends the practice in two ways – “Consumers should know if their services are unsafe” and “This is the only way that we can get businesses to fix security holes. We have called businesses and told them of problems and they have ignored us.” Corley also points out that about half of his subscribers are computer security professionals.
His point of businesses ignoring security holes was brought out a number of years ago when a 5-button lock system, purporting to be unbreakable, was installed on dorm rooms at SUNY – Stony Brook after a woman was attacked. A student at Stony Brook, a 2600 member, was able to crack the system but was unable to get anyone’s attention, particularly after it was pointed out that the same locks were used on secure areas at JFK and on FedEx boxes around New York. 2600 was able to interest NBC News in the story and NBC filmed a 2600 member holding up a big white envelope with 2600 clearly visible on it, putting the envelope into a FedEx Box, kneeling and keying number combinations, opening the box, and holding up the envelope! The systems got changed shortly after that!
The monthly NYC 2600 Meetings are held on the 1st Friday of every month at 6 PM in the FoodCourt of the CitiCorp Center, 153 E. 53rd Street. Additionally, Goldstein hosts a weekly radio show, “Off The Hook” on WBAI (99.5 FM).
This year, 2600 will host the 11th bi-annual H.O.P.E (“Hackers On Planet Earth” -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackers_on_Planet_Earth - The_Next_HOPE) at the Hotel Pennsylvania, July 22 – 26th. This is a conference that brings together hackers, intelligence officials, law enforcement, and other interested parties (previous keynote speakers have included Edward Snowden (via video conference), Steve Wozniak, Daniel Ellsberg, Richard Stallman, and Kevin Mitnick) – and puts the lie to the statement that “all hackers are evil.”
John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at www.johnmac13.com, and his books are available on Amazon.